A student-designed wheelchair is changing lives

How can technology help people with quardriplegia regain mobility and independence? A team of engineering students at the University of Central Florida are working with a non-profit tech organization to design and create an new wheelchair for people with mobility loss.

TRANSCRIPT

How can technology help with quadriplegia regain mobility and independence?

A team of engineering students at the University of Central Florida are working with a nonprofit tech organization to design and create an innovative new wheelchair for people with mobility loss.

Let's take a look.

[ Upbeat music plays ]

One of the challenges with disability technology is that it's difficult to make enough money commercially to have a lucrative business.

And universities and nonprofits are uniquely positioned to be able to take some of that risk financially and be able to have a huge impact.

There's not a big population of people with spinal-cord injuries, especially at a high level.

Like, I'm a C3 complete, so I'm pretty high up in the cervical area.

So there's not the funding, there's not the money out there to really bring a lot of change to treatments and research and things like that.

So anything I can do to help get the word out that we need this type of help, assistance, innovation -- whatever you want to call it -- that's why I'm involved with this.

Charles Merritt relies on his wheelchair for countless everyday tasks that most of us don't even think about.

Albert Manero had an idea for a low-cost invention that would make it easier for quadriplegics to get around.

At the University of Central Florida, engineering students must complete a senior design project in which they create a useful device.

Albert took his idea to several undergrads.

I was drawn to it because it was the only senior design project that directly helped somebody.

What we were making was for somebody.

And I think that's one of the strengths of our team is that we can take technology and see our work and then find the bigger purpose for it.

And when you infuse that with compassion, you end up really being able to engineer hope for a lot of people.

To help is a great thing, and I think a lot of that is sometimes lost when you get an injury like this 'cause you just feel like there's no hope.

But it's good to know that there's people out there like Limbitless Solutions just doing things to help you.

The wheelchair control system uses electromyography -- EMG for short -- a technology that detects muscle activity.

When you flex any muscle, you generate a voltage like a battery.

We can read that, and we can do the signal's processing to be able to use your flexing of muscles in a pattern to be able to control the wheelchair left, right, forward, and back.

The team is using Arduino microcontrollers, an open-source product.

This Arduino acquires the voltage signals from the EMG sensors, and the program on this Arduino takes the numbers and plots them in a more graphical sense.

The designers use the graph to determine threshold values for a specific wheelchair user.

Those values then allow them to program the wheelchair.

To set the thresholds, we look at the baseline readings, which is what we call noise or just normal everyday activity.

You want the threshold value, which is the value that the microcontroller, when it gets the signal from the EMG and it's above this threshold value, it tells the wheelchair to go in whatever direction that it's programmed to go.

And if it's below this value, it does nothing.

So, now I'm ready to demonstrate the wheelchair.

If I clench the right side of my jaw, I go right.

And if I clench the left side, I go left.

And then, to go forward, I quickly clench both, and then I stop.

Basically, it's just as easy as biting down or chewing.

So it kind of comes naturally once you get the hang of it.

Watching Charlie drive out of the lab with it was one of the most exciting points of our work here.

It's incredible to be able to see the technology actually help someone.

Oh, I was so happy to see somebody that had never seen our device, didn't know how it worked, and then, within five minutes of us telling him how it worked, he was able to ride around and go all through the engineering atrium.

It was awesome.

It doesn't obstruct your everyday activities, so for people to be able to become involved with it, to get it attached to their wheelchairs, it's really simple.

And we've gotten Charlie's feedback, and we're working now to make it even better in the hopes of getting this into the different wheelchair for people with ALS or MS or traumatic brain injury or quadriplegic victims, and being able to empower them and give them back their freedom and independence so they need an attendant to drive them around, but let them go and roll out through life.

What they've come up with just brings it to the masses and allows people to maybe get outside.

It allows people to kind of get around without having to have somebody drive their chair for them.

So the expense of it is next to none.